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Mental health matters from an early age


Author Elina Komulainen

“What emotions does a child evoke in you? What kind of parent would you like to be for your child? What changes would you need to make to your everyday life?”

A child’s mental well-being starts in the womb. It reflects the parents’ perceptions of the child, their thoughts and wishes, and the circumstances into which the child is born. Many parents need support in this new phase of their life. All people have experiences of their own childhood and their own parents’ approach to parenting. This is the point at which the parents should strengthen the skills that they will pass on. This is also the point at which to promote new ways of thinking and behaving while preventing harmful intergenerational behavioural patterns or potential mental health risk factors from being passed on.

Important messages go in both directions

The latest research into pregnancy and infancy highlights the ability of a parent to look at themselves and their relationship with their unborn child. Once a child is born, the key is safe interaction in which the parent observes and understands the child and also recognises their own emotions and reactions. A baby’s crying always conveys a message: hunger, a wet nappy, the need for sleep or physical contact. Being a parent to a baby is about responding to the baby’s basic needs. It is about giving care, which is the foundation of mental health. MIELI Mental Health Finland uses the Hand of Mental Health to describe the various elements that affect mental health. The foundations of life are sleep, nutrition, social interaction, exercise and play or creativity, and this applies to children, young people and adults alike.

Parental support goes a long way

Every child has the right to good mental health. In the Child Strategy, supporting mental health has been considered as a broader concept rather than merely individual measures. Strengthening parenting skills and support for parenting are also covered in the Child Strategy. Adequate and early support forestalls the need for more invasive services and improves children and families’ quality of life in the long term. MIELI focuses on the mental health skills of adults who work with children, young people and families in various environments. Improving their competence not only supports children and families but also promotes the staff’s own well-being and employee retention. The Child Strategy also highlights the support provided by the third sector that complements the service system, such as regular peer support meetings.

Researchers recommend that parents’ ability to understand both the baby and themselves be enhanced and that both parents be offered help in managing stress during the infancy phase. In a new situation in life, it is important to be proactive and ask parents about their coping mechanisms. The Child Strategy highlights the equality of children, the child- and family-oriented nature of the services and their accessibility. Access to the services should not require skills that not all parents have. Measures that can be used to meet families’ needs include family centre services, parental counselling, services that can be provided during house visits and offering support to both parents.

“Thank you for taking the time to meet me. Thank you for asking me directly how I am and what I need.”